Berlin, Germany – As Angela Merkel prepares to depart the stage after 15 years as chancellor, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has yet to choose who will lead the party into September’s federal elections, a decision with significant implications for the future of Germany and the European Union.
With attempts to hold an in-person conference frustrated by coronavirus restrictions, this Friday the CDU will convene a two-day online summit to determine its next chairperson who will outline the party’s post-Merkel direction and identity.
Riding a surge of support that emerged at the start of the pandemic, the CDU, along with its sister party the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), will almost certainly lead the next government.
According to a recent poll, they outpace the second-place Greens.
In the running are Friedrich Merz, Armin Laschet and Norbert Röttgen – a trio that cut similar figures, all men in their 50s or 60s, born in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
But all three have struggled to gain widespread popularity among the German public, and senior party figures suggest that the victor will not be guaranteed a run at chancellor in September, as the CDU and the CSU could choose another nominee later in the year.
Laschet is the closest to a continuity Merkel candidate, set to pursue her signature brand of fiscal rectitude balanced with a more liberal social outlook.
As minister-president of NRW, Germany’s most populous state, he has pitched himself as an experienced and competent governor, committed to EU integration, who will retain the party’s position in the centre ground.
Merz, however, is unapologetic in his desire to break the Merkel mould and renew the CDU’s traditional social conservatism, packaged together with a free-market, pro-business agenda. Sidelined during her rise to chancellor in the early 2000s, he departed politics for almost 10 years, making millions as a corporate lawyer and sitting on the board of BlackRock Germany.
In recent months he has drawn criticism after appearing to link homosexuality and paedophilia in an interview, and suggesting in a TV debate that migrants are responsible for a rise in Germany’s unemployment rate.
“[On] migration policy and internal security he pursues a quite restrictive course,” Ursula Münch, professor of political science at Munich University, told Al Jazeera.
“Merz claims to get those voters back for the CDU who went to the AfD [Alternative For Germany]. But on the contrary, he will lose those voters who are more liberal, who are undecided between the Greens and the CDU … Röttgen and Laschet would have more probably more success with this group.”
Foreign policy expert Röttgen began the race as a fringe candidate but has climbed steadily in his opinion polls with his calls to modernise the party and make it younger, more female, and more environmentally conscious. He also wants Berlin to take a tougher line against the Chinese and Russian governments.
Merz leads polls among CDU supporters, although the 1,001 party functionaries eligible to vote this weekend may weigh his popularity within the party against his liabilities outside – he holds little appeal among centrist voters and presents potential difficulties in a coalition with the Greens, the obvious choice for forming a government after the elections.
Notably absent from the ballot are two of the party’s most popular figures – Germany’s young health minister Jens Spahn and Markus Soder, leader of Bavaria and the CSU – who might yet have a path to the chancellery.
“If it’s a very narrow election victory for the chairman, and if the public and especially the media, doubts the abilities of the new elected candidate as candidate for chancellor, then it might happen,” said Münch.
Spahn built a strong reputation during the first wave of the pandemic, though his popularity has ebbed somewhat amid Germany’s slow vaccine roll-out.
His pledged support for Laschet has not ruled him out entirely, as media reports claim that behind the scenes he has been courting support for a chancellor bid if his public stature continues to surpass Laschet’s.
Likewise, Soder has disavowed any desire to lead Germany, but he is shrewd and has a propensity for opportunistic reinvention. He would, however, have to overcome a reluctance to running CSU politicians, who have been defeated in both past attempts.
Merkel’s broad personal appeal has been crucial to her political longevity, drawing in Germans from far beyond the CDU’s traditional base of rural conservatives, churchgoers and small business owners.
Maintaining that coalition will be a big challenge for her successor in the months to come, who could not be expected to match her approval rate, which reached highs of 70 percent last year.
“The new leadership needs to concentrate on the question of integrating the voters who came from the Social Democrats on the one side, and on the other side the lost voters who were gone to the AfD,” said Nils Diederich, a professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin.
“The party has a need to present itself as the real ‘Volkspartei’ – a party which tries to integrate different social groups and the interest of the economy, [as well as addressing] social questions.”
Emerging from Merkel’s shadow will be particularly difficult following a strong final act to her career, spurred by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
At home, she jettisoned her fixation with balanced budgets, and along with SPD finance minister Olaf Scholz, spent billions on furlough schemes for workers and aid for businesses, while urging regional leaders to lockdown decisively to reduce infections.
At the EU level, she worked with French President Emmanuel Macron to push through a 750 billion euros ($913bn) recovery package against intransigence from Poland and Hungary, and secured a new trade deal to shore up the union’s economic ties with China.
“The way 2021 is shaping up, there will not be months without major decisions to be taken on foreign policy and any crises to be handled, so all of them would have to hit the ground running,” Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“They will need to slowly build up their own stature and own way of doing things. But Merkel also had to do that, in 2005. When she came into power, people didn’t fully take her seriously.”
The CDU’s leadership vote will not finally settle the matter of who is to be Merkel’s successor, but it will offer much of the German public a first opportunity to think seriously about what lies ahead for the party and the country.
“People haven’t started to turn the page … Especially those voters who voted for Merkel and the CDU because of [her], they haven’t really started asking themselves, ‘Who will I vote for?’,” said Benner.